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Mosby's sensuous, lyrical prose, highly praised in her debut novel, "Private Alters," transports the reader to the social whirl of 1950s Manhattan. When Gabriel Gibbs is expelled from his private school because of some adolescent antics, his punishment is an exhilarating invitation to a dazzling new world. A member of an extended aristocratic family in a privileged segment of post-World War II society, Gabriel is sent to live on West Ninth Street with his older brother, Spencer, a poet. Here he enjoys the excitement of smoking cigars at the Plaza Hotel and weekend house parties filled with tennis and cocktails. Somewhere between white-gloved Park Avenue and literary Greenwich Village, the free-spirited and mysterious Lillian Dawes captures his imagination. Adding to her mystique is the fact that Miss Dawes has no money but floats within the upper class WASP world with ease. Both brothers have an obsession with this glamorous young woman; however Spencer is the romantic victor in a relationship with unexpected consequences.

A poet as well as a novelist, Mosby allows the reader to glide across her sentences where the faint echoes of Edith Wharton and Henry James can be heard. "The Season of Lillian Dawes" is a story of two young men's premature coming of age, with acid Salinger-esque dialogue to outline the visual portrait. Throughout the novel one expects Holden Caulfield to appear at any moment. — Lee Hall

Disillusionment Abroad

In fiction, American optimism doesn't always travel well. Whether embodied by "ugly" or "quiet" Americans, it always meets the same fate: death-by-a-country's reality. Sarah Stone takes this well-worn theme and makes it fresh in her novel "The True Source of the Nile" ($25 Doubleday). The reader knows beforehand the fate of her central character's hopes — in her adopted African nation's ability to democratize, in her affair with the country's ruling family member overcoming racial and cultural barriers — but the material remains compelling. Stone even adds a new twist to this old theme by setting another disillusioning experience in her own country; the character's faith in her own family turns out to be an illusion.

Stone handles this theme of mendacity well, showing it to be a worldwide phenomenon and not peculiar to any one country. Stone's gifts are characterization and description. Her handling of the main character's loss of faith — no easy task — is superb. She is able to portray the terror inherent in not being able to trust anyone. Her other characters, compulsive liars, rank with the best of Dashiell Hammett's. They are worth reading just to see if the truth escapes their lips. Her descriptions of the countryside and the violence of the 1993 revolution are first rate.

The weakness of the book stems from Stone's tendency to over-lyricize her character's dialogue. Everyone talks as if they graduated from the same elite school. Words like "trope" and "contradistinction" pepper what everyone says. Stone fails to capture how real people talk; instead they come off as stilted Edmund Wilsons. But overall the book is a worthwhile read. Stone reveals that the best detective stories do not always have to involve murders but can subsist just on illusions. — Ron Capshaw

Heads Up:

On June 27 Craig L. Symonds discusses his book "American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg" at the Museum and White House of the Confederacy. The discussion will last from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., and there will be books available for purchase. Tickets to the public are $5; free to museum members. For reservations call (804) 649-1861.


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